The Little Red House [story by C. J. Dennis]

[Editor: This story by C. J. Dennis was published in A Book for Kids, 1921.]

The Little Red House

Very few grown-up people understand houses. Only children understand them properly, and, if I understand them just a little, it is because I knew Sym. Sym and his wife, Emily Ann, lived in the Little Red House. It was built on a rather big mountain, and there were no other houses near it. At one time, long ago, the mountain had been covered all over with a great forest; but men had cut the trees down, all but one big Blue-gum, which grew near the Little Red House. The Blue-gum and the Little Red House were great friends, and often had long talks together. The Blue-gum was a very old tree — over a hundred years old — and he was proud of it, and often used to tell of the time, long ago, when blackfellows hunted ’possums in his branches. That was before the white men came to the mountain, and before there were any houses near it.

Once upon a time I put a verse about the mountain and the Little Red House into a book of rhymes which I wrote for grown ups. I don’t think they thought much about it. Very likely they said, “Oh, it’s just a house on a hill,” and then forgot it, because they were too busy about other things.

This is the rhyme:

A great mother mountain, and kindly is she,
Who nurses young rivers and sends them to sea.
And, nestled high up on her sheltering lap,
Is a little red house, with a little straw cap
That bears a blue feather of smoke, curling high,
And a bunch of red roses cocked over one eye.

I have tried here to draw the Little Red House for you as well as I can; and it isn’t my fault if it happens to look just a little like somebody’s face. I can’t help it, can I? if the stones of the door-step look something like teeth, or if the climbing roses make the windows look like a funny pair of spectacles. And if Emily Ann will hang big fluffy bobs on the window blinds for tassels, and if they swing about in the breeze like moving eyes, well, I am not to blame, am I? It just happens. The only thing I am sorry for is that I couldn’t get the big Blue-gum into the picture. Of course, I could have drawn it quite easily, but it was too big.

Sym and Emily Ann were fond of the Little Red House, and you may be sure the Little Red House was fond of them — he was their home. The only thing that bothered him was that they were sometimes away from home, and then he was miserable, like all empty houses.

Now, Sym was a tinker — a travelling tinker. He would do a little gardening and farming at home for a while, and then go off about the country for a few days, mending people’s pots and pans and kettles. Usually Sym left Emily Ann at home to keep the Little Red House company, but now and then Emily Ann went with Sym for a trip, and then the Little Red House was very sad indeed.

One morning, just as the sun was peeping over the edge of the world, the big Blue-gum woke up and stretched his limbs and waited for the Little Red House to say “Good morning.” The Blue-gum always waited for the greeting because he was the older, and he liked to have proper respect shown to him by young folk, but the Little Red House didn’t say a word.

The big Blue-gum waited and waited; but the Little Red House wouldn’t speak.

After a while the Blue-gum said rather crossly, “You seem to be out of sorts this morning.”

But the Little Red House wouldn’t say a word.

“You certainly do seem as if you had a pain somewhere,” said the Blue-gum. “And you look funny. You ought to see yourself!”

“Indeed?” snapped the Little Red House, raising his eyebrows just as a puff of wind went by. “I can’t always be playing the fool, like some people.”

“I’ve lived on this mountain, tree and sapling, for over a hundred years,” replied the big Blue-gum very severely, “and never before have I been treated with such disrespect. When trees become houses they seem to lose their manners.”

“Forgive me,” cried the Little Red House. “I didn’t mean to be rude. I was just listening. There are things going on inside me that I don’t like.”

“I hope they aren’t ill-treating you,” said the Blue-gum.

“They are going to leave me!” sighed the Little Red House. “And they are laughing quite happily, as if they were glad about it. There’s a nice thing for you! — Going to leave me, and laughing about it!”

“But perhaps you are wrong,” said the big Blue-gum, who was not so hard-hearted as he seemed.

“I always know,” moaned the Little Red House. “I can’t be mistaken. Sym was singing his Tinker’s Song this morning long before the sun was up. And then I heard him tell Emily Ann not to forget her umbrella. That means that she is going; and the little dog is going; and I shall be all alone.”

“Well,” answered the Blue-gum rather stiffly, “you still have me for company.”

“I know,” sighed the Little Red House. “Don’t think I’m ungrateful. But, when they both go away, I shan’t be really and truly a home again until they come back — just an empty house; and it makes me miserable. How would youlike to be an empty house?”

“Some day I might be,” replied the Blue-gum, “if I don’t grow too old. There is some fine timber in me yet.”

Suddenly there was a great clattering and stamping inside the Little House, and Sym began to sing his Tinker’s Song.

“Kettles and pans! Kettles and pans!
All the broad earth is the tinkering man’s —
The green leafy lane or the fields are his home,
The road or the river, where’er he may roam.
He roves for a living and rests where he can.
Then bring out your kettle! ho! kettle or pan!”

There’s a nice thing for you!” said the Little Red House bitterly. “What kind of a song do you call that? Any old place is good enough for his home, and I am just nothing!”

“Oh, that’s only his way of putting it,” answered the Blue-gum kindly. “He doesn’t really mean it, you know; he wants a change, that’s all.”

But the Little Red House wouldn’t say a word.

“It looks a good deal like rain this morning, doesn’t it?” said the Blue-gum cheerfully, trying to change the subject.

But the Little Red House wouldn’t say a word.

Very soon Sym and Emily Ann, carrying bundles, came out of the Little House, laughing and talking; and Sym locked the door.

“Now for a jolly trip!” shouted Sym, as he picked up his firepot and soldering-irons.

But all at once Emily Ann ceased laughing and looked back wistfully at the Little Red House.

“After all, I’m rather sorry to leave our little home,” she said. “See how sad it looks!”

“Hurry on!” cried Sym, who was all eagerness for the trip. Then he, too, looked back. “Why, you forgot to draw down the blinds,” he said.

“No, I didn’t forget,” answered Emily Ann, “but I think it a shame to blindfold the Little House while we are away. I just left the blinds up so that he could see things. Good-bye, little home,” she called. And the Little Red House felt just the least bit comforted to think that Emily Ann was sorry to leave him. Then she went off down the winding path with Sym; and Sym began to shout his Tinker’s Song again.

The Little Red House watched them go down the mountain.

Away they went: through the gate, past the black stump, round by the bracken patch and over the bridge, across the potato paddock, through the sliprails — getting smaller and smaller — past the sign-post, down by the big rocks — getting smaller and smaller — under the tree-ferns, out on to the stony flat, across the red road, until they were just two tiny specks away down in the valley. Then they went through a white gate, round a turn, and the high scrub hid them.

Had you been able to see the Little Red House just at that moment, you would have been sure he was going to cry — he looked so miserable and so lonely.

“Cheer up!” said the big Blue-gum.

But the Little Red House couldn’t say a word.

Presently the big Blue-gum groaned loudly.

“Oo! Ah! Ah! Golly!” groaned the Blue-gum in a strange voice.

“I beg your pardon? said the Little Red House.

“Oh, I have a nasty sharp pain in my side,” said the Blue-gum. “I do hope and trust it isn’t white-ants. It would be simply horrible, if it were. Fancy getting white-ants at my time of life! Here I have lived on this mountain, tree and sapling, for over a hundred years; and to think those nasty, white, flabby little things should get me at last is horrible — horrible!”

“I am sorry,” said the Little House. “I’m afraid I’ve been very selfish, too. I was forgetting that everyone has troubles of his own; but I hope it isn’t so bad as you fear.”

“It is bad enough,” groaned the Blue-gum. “Ow! There it is again. I’m afraid it is white-ants. I can feel the wretched little things nipping.”

But the Little Red House hardly heard him. He was thinking again of his own troubles.

So they stood all through that day, saying very little to each other. Rabbits came and played about the Little Red House, and lizards ran over his door-step, and once a big wallaby went flopping right past the front gate. But the Little Red House paid no attention. He was too busy thinking of his loneliness.

Birds came and perched in the branches of the big Blue-gum, and chattered and sang to him, trying to tell him the news of other trees on distant mountains. But the big Blue-gum took no notice. He was too busy thinking about white-ants.

So the sun sank low behind the Little House, and the shadow of the tall Blue-gum began to creep down the mountain and get longer and longer.

Just as it was growing dark, the big Blue-gum said suddenly, “It certainly looks more like rain than ever. The heavy clouds have been gathering all day, and we shall get it properly to-night.”

But the rain did not come that night, nor the next day, nor for two days and nights. And all this while the Little Red House and the big Blue-gum remained silent and miserable — one through loneliness, the other through white-ants.

But on the evening of the third day the big Blue-gum said, “The rain will come to-night for certain. I know by the feel of the air.”

“Let it come!” said the Little Red House. “I don’t care. I couldn’t be more miserable than I am.”

Just as he said that, one great rain-drop fell right on the middle of his roof — Plop!

“It’s coming already,” cried the Blue-gum, “and it’s going to pour.”

Then three more big drops fell — Plop! Plop! Plop!

“I have never in my life seen such big rain-drops,” said the Blue-gum. “I’ve lived on this mountain, tree and sapling, for —”

But — Crash! came rain before he could finish; and in two seconds everything was sopping wet. The noise of it was deafening.

“Why, it’s a cloud-burst!” shouted the Blue-gum. “Half of my leaves have been stripped off already.” Then he peered through the rain and the dark to see how the Little House was taking it. “Why, what’s the matter with your face?” he cried. “You look awful.”

“I’m crying!” sobbed the Little Red House. “That’s all — just crying. “Can’t you see the tears?”

“Nonsense!” said the Blue-gum. “Those are not tears. It’s just the rain-water running off your window-sills.”

“I tell you I’m crying!” wailed the Little Red House. “I’m crying bitterly. I should know, shouldn’t I? I’m shivering and crying because I’m cold and lonely and miserable.”

“Oh, very well,” agreed the Blue-gum. “You are crying. But if this rain doesn’t stop soon, you’ll cry the front path away. It certainly is wet.”

Very late that night the rain eased a little and then stopped altogether. The tears ceased to run from the eyes of the Little Red House, and they now came only in drops, slower and slower, falling into the great pool by the front door.

“It’s a hard world!” sobbed the Little Red House, squeezing out another tear.

“Listen!” cried the Big Blue-gum. “Do you hear that?”

From far away on the distant ranges came a dull, moaning sound. As they listened it grew louder, and right in the middle of it came another sound — Thump!

“That’s wind,” said the Blue-gum; “and a big wind, too.”

“Let it come!” sighed the Little Red House. “I couldn’t be more miserable than I am.”

As he spoke, the moaning grew louder, and there were three or four quite big thumps one after another.

“What’s that thumping?” asked the Little House.

“Those are my poor brothers,” answered the big Blue-gum very sadly. “Those are trees going down before the big wind. The birds were bringing me messages from those poor fellows quite lately; and now I shall never hear from them again. It’s very sad.”

“I never thought the wind could blow down big trees,” said the Little House.

“No tree knows when his time will come,” the big Blue-gum answered gravely. “I’ve had some very narrow escapes in my time, as tree and sapling on this mountain.”

The Little Red House was very quiet and thoughtful for a long time after that. Then he asked suddenly, “Which way do you think you would fall if you did fall?”

But the big Blue-gum said that he couldn’t tell. It depended on the wind, and he might fall any way.

“Not on me!” cried the Little House.

The Blue-gum said that he didn’t know; but he hoped not.

“If you didfall on me,” said the Little Red House, “I suppose it would hurt me.”

The Blue-gum said it certainly would, and there would be very little left but splinters and glass.

“Then don’t! Please don’t,” yelled the Little Red House.

But before they could say another word the great wind struck them with a roar. It tossed the roses about so that the eyebrows of the Little House seemed to be twitching horribly; and it swayed the big Blue-gum this way and that till he appeared to be fighting for his very life. It picked up the fallen leaves and twigs, and even small stones, and hurled them down the mountain in a cloud.

In the midst of all the uproar the Little House heard the Blue-gum calling to him.

“As long as I’ve lived upon this mountain, tree and sapling,” he shouted, “I’ve never known such a wind. I’m not so young as I used to be, and I fear that my end has come.”

“Be brave! Oh, be brave!” implored the Little Red House. “Don’t let him blow you down. I should be so sorry to lose you, What are you grunting for?”

“I’m not grunting,” answered the Blue-gym in a pained voice. “Those are my roots giving way, one by one. I can’t stand much more of this. Look out!”

The Little Red House looked up, and what he saw terrified him. The big Blue-gum, in the clutch of the wind, was bent right over him, so that the top branches seemed to be just above his roof; and the great tree appeared to be falling, falling, helplessly.

“Don’t fall on me!” shrieked the Little Red House. “Oh, don’t fall on me; because, if you do, you know you’ll squash me! I don’t want to be squashed!”

But the big Blue-gum said, “There is just one little root holding now. If that gives way we are both done for.”

“Be brave! Oh, be brave!” shrieked the Little Red House.

Then slowly, very slowly, the big Blue-gum began to straighten up again, away from the Little Red House.

“I have stood upon this mountain, tree and sapling, for over a hundred years,” he said when he had recovered; “but if it blows like that again, it is the end of me.”

But it did not blow like that again; though the wind howled and shrieked all that day as if it was very angry and disappointed that it could not blow down the big Blue-gum.

Then, towards evening, the wind fell; the heavy clouds went away beyond the edge of the sky, and all became very calm and peaceful.

The birds came from their hiding places and sat in the branches of the Blue-gum and chattered away to him, until he began to feel quite cheerful once more, in spite of his troubles. And when a certain little Tree-creeper — a very wise bird — came and had a long, serious talk with the Blue-gum, he became very much interested indeed and quite happy.

But the Little Red House was miserable still; and the beauty of the evening didn’t cheer him up one bit.

“Ah, well,” said the Blue-gum, when the darkness came to the mountain, “I am going to have a good sleep tonight. I’m a match still for old Daddy Wind, in spite of all his noise and bluster. And there are ways of dealing with white-ants, too. I’ve lived upon this mountain, tree and sapling, for —”

But as he was talking he fell fast asleep.

The Little Red House did not sleep. How could he, with his eyes wide open? So he just stood there all night staring before him, lonely and wretched. And when an owl came and sat in the tree and began to call, “Mopoke,” the Little Red House told him rudely to stop his silly noise and clear out. That will just show you how very miserable he was.

It was quite late next morning when the Blue-gum awoke. He stretched his big limbs, and began to wonder what he might say to comfort the Little House. But when the Blue-gum looked down, he saw that the Little House was smiling all over his face.

“Well, now!” cried the big Blue-gum cheerfully. “That’s the kind of face I like to see in the morning! So you’ve decided to be sensible and forget your loneliness?”

But the Little Red House didn’t say a word. He just went on smiling.

Then the big Blue-gum began to get uneasy.

“I do hope your troubles haven’t turned you silly,” he said. “You haven’t lost your senses, have you?”

I?” cried the Little Red House. “Why, look down the valley! See who’s coming!”

Down, far down, the valley, just coming through the white gate, were two figures that looked like tiny specks. And much nearer was another speck, which was certainly a little dog.

“It’s them — I mean those are they!” shouted the Little Red House happily. “Sym and Emily Ann! And here comes our little dog.”

“Well, you certainly have sharp eyes,” replied the Blue-gum. “But I suppose I’m getting old — over a hundred years, you know.”

The two figures were through the white gate now, and had crossed the red road out on to the stony flat — getting bigger and bigger as they came; and the smile on the Little Red House seemed to grow broader and broader. On they came, under the tree-ferns, up by the big rocks, past the sign-post. And now the Little Red House could hear Sym singing his Tinker’s Song.

But it was not quite the same song this time:

“Kettles and pans! Ho, kettles and pans!
Where’s there a home like the tinkering man’s?
Weary of wandering, home is the place —
The Little Red House with the smile on his face —
Weary and hungry, my Emily Ann.
Then put on the kettle! Ho, put on the pan!”

“Now that is the sort of song I do like,” said the Little Red House, as he watched them coming up the mountain.

On they came, growing bigger and bigger — through the sliprails, across the potato paddock, over the bridge, round by the bracken-patch, past the black stump, through the gate, and here they were, right at the front door.

“Oh, I am glad to be home again,” cried Emily Ann. “And do look at the Little House. He seems to be smiling.”

“Of course he is smiling,” answered Sym; “but he has a very dirty face.”

“The storm did that,” said Emily Ann. “Now hurry and get the fire alight, and I’ll put the kettle on.” And they went inside laughing and singing, while the little dog flew round the house, barking for dear life, and pretending he was very busy seeing everything was in order.

“Now I suppose you’re happy,” said the big Blue-gum to the Little Red House.

“Happy?” cried the Little House. “Of course I am. Why, I’m a home again!” But suddenly he remembered that his own happiness had made him forget all about his old friend’s troubles; and he tried his best to look serious, as he said: “But what about you? Are the white-ants still troubling you?”

“Ah!” replied the Blue-gum. “Don’t let that worry you. Yesterday I had a talk with the doctor — Doctor Tree-creeper, you know — a very clever little bird he is, and he knows all about white-ants. He examined me thoroughly all over. He says that they have hardly got under my skin yet, and he will have them all out in a couple of days. So that’s all right.”

“Well, I am glad,” shouted the Little Red House. “Now we are all happy!”

Then Sym got the fire started, and the smoke curled up, and the Little House had his gay blue feather once again. Sym began to sing his Tinker’s Song louder than ever, and Emily Ann, who was getting the meal ready, joined in and sang too. Very soon the kettle also began to sing, and, when the pan heard that, he began to sing. Then Doctor Tree-creeper arrived to attend to the white-ants, and, as he walked round the trunk of the big Blue-gum, tapping it just like a doctor, he began to sing. And two Kookaburras, who were sitting on the fence, were so tickled with it all that they laughed and laughed till they made everyone else laugh with them.

“This is quite like old times,” laughed the big Blue-gum. “Are you contented now?”

“Am I contented?” cried the Little Red House. “Am I contented? Well, what would you think?”

And then — well, most ordinary grown-up folk would tell you that just then Emily Ann drew down one of the front blinds. But all the big Blue-gum knew, and all you and I know, is that the Little Red House winked.

And when I saw him last, his smile was as broad as ever, and he was still winking.

C. J. Dennis. A Book for Kids, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, [1921], pages 29-47

[Editor: Corrected “Blue gum rather” to “Blue-gum rather”; “seemed so be” to “seemed to be”.]

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